When Apple CEO Steve Jobs emerged from sick leave earlier this month for the blockbuster reveal of his second generation iPad, the first thing he wanted to highlight was the new gadget's appeal as an ebook platform.
Pacing the stage at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Jobs announced that Random House had joined the list of 2,500 publishers that make iBooks available for use on the iPad. He also noted that Apple's digital book store store had logged more than 100 million downloads since launching last April--a "milestone" achievement, he boasted.
"We're really thrilled," the 56-year-old tech guru gushed.
Other observers of the media scene were a good deal more tempered in sizing up the shift to ebooks--but they still acknowledge that the new reading platform is gaining ground.
"Ebooks aren't going to save journalism by any means," wrote Joshua Benton of Nieman Journalism Lab in his recap of Jobs' speech, "but I think by the end of this year, we'll look back and see that for some companies it will be a small but welcome addition to the bottom line."
Benton's prediction is already playing out. As the e-reading market surges, news organizations are publishing topical standalone ebooks on the cheap and easy. These initial forays into the virtual print market for books aren't exactly supplanting other revenue streams, it's true. As Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times (which published its inaugural ebook this winter) put it during a recent interview at CUNY's Graduate School of Journalism: "It's not gonna be a save-the-company kind of venture." But for an industry short on advertising dollars—and one that is striving to convince the masses that long-form journalism is still worth paying for—why not?
"It's icing on the cake," said Joshua Tallent, founder of the consultancy and design firm eBook Architects. "It's another option, another revenue possibility, something that should be considered."
At the CUNY event, where NPR "On the Media" co-host Brooke Gladstone grilled the Gray Lady's captain, Keller was sanguine when asked about the Times' ebook on the career of WikiLeaks, "Open Secrets." Produced over the course of two months (with the help of eBook Architects), the work clocks in just shy of 133,000 words. It features writing and reportage (most of it previously published) from 49 Times journalists and is available on multiple e-reading platforms.
"It was kind of fun," said Keller of putting together the title, to which he wrote the introduction. "I hope we'll do more. It's a lot easier and cheaper and quicker to do than print books." (The Times, like other news media outlets, has a separate in-house print publishing arm.) "It's the fastest growing segment, the only growing segment of the book market," he added.
Indeed, ebook sales shot up nearly 165 percent in 2010 to $441 million (8 percent of the total trade book market, versus 3 percent the previous year), up from $167 million in 2009, and $61.3 million in 2008, according to the Association of American Publishers. During the first month of this year, net ebook sales rose almost 116 percent from January of 2010, the Association announced last week.
And struggling writers can also take heart in the more robust ebook market; self-published books fare quite well alongside the titles that mainstream houses and established news outlets are producing. Consider, for example, the runaway ebook renown of 26-year-old publishing-house reject Amanda Hocking. She's the author of nine goth young-adult novels in the "Twilight" vein, and now sells about 100,000 copies of the ebooks every month for up to $3 a pop in the Kindle Store. (She also gets to keep 70 percent of the revenues--a far better take than print writers typically secure--per the standard agreement between content creators and electronic vendors such as Amazon and Apple.)
The Times' ebook isn't running up those kind of sales figures, but it isn't doing bad, either. Jim Schachter, The Times' associate managing editor, says "Open Secrets" has clocked sales in the thousands since the title debuted at the end of January, though he declined to specify an exact number. (Amazon also declined to provide sales figures for that, or any other title to The Cutline.) The day after its Jan. 31 release, Grove/Atlantic approached the Times about publishing a paperback edition, which debuted on Tuesday.
Schachter said the Times is "actively thinking about its next ebook," which will likely draw on the paper's lifestyle and service-oriented content. Executives will sign off on the subject matter in the coming weeks, he said.
"With the application of a certain amount of effort, we can take our content that tends to have a pretty short half life and give it lasting value," said Schachter. "That's the hypothesis we need to continue testing."
Other news organizations are experimenting with the format as well. The nonprofit investigative journalism outfit ProPublica released its third ebook Tuesday as part of Amazon's new Kindle Singles program, which sells works of long-form journalism and novellas in ebook form, priced between $.99 and $4.99. (ProPublica is giving this Kindle Single away for free, in order to cultivate a strong return audience for its work, a spokesman told The Cutline.) The Reynolds Journalism Institute published a series of digital "newsbooks" in 2009 and 2010, including one that compiled the St. Petersburg Times' reporting on the Church of Scientology. In February, Foreign Policy released its first self-published ebook, tied to the recent uprisings in the Middle East; 1,000 copies were sold for $4.99 each during its first week, said Susan Glasser, the magazine's editor-in-chief. "This is going to be a terrific growth area," she said.
Newsweek also is exploring an ebooks strategy. It makes sense in light of the magazine's merger with Tina Brown's Daily Beast, which had a pre-existing print and digital publishing partnership with Perseus Books. "There's more long-form journalism" in the magazine, "which lends itself even more to short books," said Lucas Wittmann, the Beast's book editor. "We may find a book that we're so eager to get out, or a topic that is so of the moment it just comes out as an ebook. The great thing about this kind of publishing platform is that it's so flexible."
Newsweek's rival, Time, is already in the game. The magazine published its first ebook, a $6.99 expanded adaptation of Nancy Gibbs' article on the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill, last April. (It reached No. 400 on the Kindle paid bestseller list, an Amazon spokeswoman said.) A second ebook ($5.99), based on Time's annual Person of the Year feature, was released last December, and Amazon is looking into producing foreign language editions of the title.
"This is definitely new for us, something we're experimenting with," said Daniel Kile, a spokesman for Time. "We're considering a few ideas for 2011."
Of course, it's still far too early in the gestation of the ebook market to know how, or whether, it may upend the traditional print-book model. So far, at least, no traditional book publishing outfit is about to close up their print shop in favor of the digital model--nor are journalists likely to stop chasing the research advances and promotional support they can get from the established trade publishers.
"Publishers certainly don't feel threatened by the fact that the New York Times does an occasional ebook," said Peter Osnos, the veteran journalist and founder of the Perseus imprint PublicAffairs.
Indeed, as news outfits continue to experiment with ebooks, parties on all sides are hopeful that the new publishing platform might at last furnish that great, elusive media industry dream of true product synergy. "The important thing is that people are increasingly willing to read long-form on digital readers," said Osnos. "The more we attract people to e-readers, the better."
Melissa Flashman, a Trident Media Group literary agent whose client roster includes an array of non-fiction authors and journalists (including The Cutline's editor), concurs.
"Ebooks are a positive story for news organizations. ... It's a win for journalism," she said. "If what ebooks have proven is that there's a market for long-form reporting, that can't be a bad thing."